Since its debut in 2009, the “Paranormal Activity” series has been a reliable, consistent delivery system for lo-fi thrills. The movies themselves are perfectly disposable — they’re not the kinds of movies you watch over-and-over again, or even more than once — but they do their job and do it well, making viewers jump with a few good scares and letting them get on with their lives.
The formula, simple though it may be — tension escalating as strange things happen in the corner of a webcam or camcorder screen, followed by a big BOOM — shows signs of wear in “Paranormal Activity 4,” the series’ weakest entry to-date. The previous movies had a creeping dread and a sense that something sinister was around every corner, but “PA4″ has a lighter tone, with more “gotcha” shocks than real scares and a storyline with only the thinnest of connections to the series’ main plot line. It’s a piffle that’s instantly forgotten before the end credits even roll.
The movie follows a Nevada family to whom weird things start happening once they take in a strange boy who lives across the street. These things are viewed mostly on webcam in long, unbroken takes, sometimes in shaky handheld footage courtesy of the family’s daughter, Alex (Kathryn Newton), and sometimes in nightvision with a filter that shines motion capture dots throughout the field of view, a trick reminiscent of the end of Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” video, to reference a cultural touchstone that’s several generations removed from the film’s intended audience. Eventually we learn why the boy is causing so much trouble, which ties the story back to the franchise’s roots, if you care or even remember them.
There’s a rousing sequence late in the movie involving a car and a garage where Alex rallies the audience behind her and shows some impressive survival skills, but elsewhere “Paranormal Activity 4″ is all warmed-over frights that are as stale as last year’s Halloween candy. The film’s closing moments tie into a thread brought forth in “Paranormal Activity 3,” meaning — hopefully — this is all eventually headed somewhere. But by the time they get there, will anyone care?
‘Paranormal Activity 4′
Rated R: For language and some violence/ terror
Running time: 81 minutes